Review: The Biograph Girl (Finborough Theatre)

David Heneker and Warner Brown’s slight but charming piece gets its first ever professional revival

Nova  Skipp, Sophie Linder-Lee and Jason Morell
Nova Skipp, Sophie Linder-Lee and Jason Morell
© Lisa Crisafulli

At its flop 1980 West End premiere, The Biograph Girl, currently receiving its first ever professional revival at the tiny Finborough, was billed as a musical. At the risk of sounding pedantic, I would argue that David Heneker and Warner Brown's slight but charming piece is more of a revue. There is a central running theme – the transition of moving pictures from the disrespected silent 'flickers' to fully fledged 'talkies' – and a number of historical Hollywood figures represented as onstage characters, chief among them actresses Mary Pickford and Lilian Gish, movie directors D W Griffith and Mack Sennett, and the mogul Adolph Zukor. But the majority of the (frequently lovely) songs comment upon, or sit outside, the action of the plot rather than springing directly from it.

Brown's book is stuffed with information, no doubt meticulously researched, but at the expense of characterisation, although Mary Pickford does emerge as a fascinating mixture of outward charm but inner unscrupulousness, one part America's sweetheart to two parts astute, ruthless businesswoman. Terrific Sophie Linder-Lee, bearing a remarkable resemblance to Jane Krakowski, invests her with a a soaring soprano, killer tap moves, a delightful sense of fun but also strongly suggests a woman not to be messed with. Elsewhere, major plot developments – the accusation of racism in Griffith's work, his financial ruin, his complex relationship with Lilian Gish – is dealt with in sometimes bewilderingly desultory fashion. It is hard to empathise with characters who are so sketchily drawn.

Despite this, a wonderfully talented company display an unerring sense of the period and play the occasionally mediocre material for rather more than it is always worth. The choral singing is gorgeous, Holly Hughes' choreography is remarkably tight and inventive given the space limitations, and Harry Haden-Brown's superb musical direction is very much part of the action.

Jonathan Leinmuller is all mad-eyed charisma and authoritative vocals as D W Griffith, while Emily Langham is touchingly sincere and golden-voiced as gentle, classy Gish. She gets to deliver the unfortunate lyric "Every lady needs a master", which is a reminder of how much gender politics have moved on in the intervening years. Matthew Cavendish is a total delight as an athletic, comical Mack Sennett.

The song "Rivers Of Blood" which addresses the racism in Griffith's Birth of a Nation movie – and sung here with appropriate potent fury by Joshua C Jackson – was cut from the original as producer Harold Fielding deemed it out of kilter with the kind of show he wanted. It's a fine number and, if it doesn't feel entirely of a piece with the essential lightness of the rest of the material, it does hint intriguingly at what book writer Brown might have created had he paid more than lip service to the darker side of the story. As it is, Heneker's music throughout is gently tuneful and I am surprised more of these songs aren't better known outside the context of the show. Maybe after this production they will be.

Anna Yates' barebones set and Ali Hunter's basic lighting, coupled with the tiny playing area, give the rather lovable overall impression of Jenny Eastop's nimble production being a musical mounted in somebody's drawing room. That doesn't feel inappropriate. This is perhaps not a major rediscovery but it is an enjoyably melodic divertissement pitched half way between the piano-led English scores of Julian Slade and the Broadway bombast of Jerry Herman's Mack & Mabel.